Editing Shakespeare

Letter to the Editor

Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 1985; © the estate of eric sams



    Sir, - Stanley Wells (Letters, February 8) has confirmed my fears. First, scholarly editors are indeed at odds about such fundamentals as Shakespeare’s revisions; so let the buyer beware. Second, Duthie was indeed mistaken about the “memorial reconstructions” of Lear; so it is misleading to claim that the parallel theories about HamletShrew or Henry VI have never demonstrated anything except their own inadequacy. Where is the actual evidence for them, and what of their detailed rebuttal by the American scholars Greer, Prouty and Craig, among others? Despite the papering, the same deep cracks still show.





    Sir, - A deep crack is opening in Shakespeare studies, and the paying public needs to know where it stands and which side to take.

      Stanley Wells, the General Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, has no doubt (Letters, January 18) that Shakespeare habitually revised and rewrote his own work, including King Lear. But this article of faith is anathema to Harold Jenkins, general editor of the Arden Shakespeare (v Hamlet, 1982, 5, 19). The main casus belli is the latter’s ardent adherence to the Alexander-Duthie doctrines of “memorial reconstruction”, which imagine eg Hamlet Q2, and the Folio Lear, Shrew and 2-3 Henry VI as first texts, not revisions, and their Quarto counterparts as corrupt piracies. But if, as Hardin Craig showed in 1961, and the Oxford editorial board now accepts, Lear Q1 is a play by Shakespeare, then Duthie’s dismissal of it as mere “memorial reconstruction” must be ludicrously misconceived. This same Duthie, and his mentor Alexander, were equally wrong about the Shrew plays, as I have already intimated (TLS, September 2 1983) and shall demonstrate in detail (Notes and Queries, March 1985). So too, as I also suggested, and can demonstrate, are their respective “memorial reconstruction” theories about the Hamlet and Henry VI plays.

      Now that Shakespeare is at last authoritatively acknowledged as a regular and indeed radical reviser of his own work, the attribution and dating of all his early versions and source-plays may stand some chance of rational re-appraisal with consequences as far-reaching and salutary as they are long overdue. One point puzzles me, though. Why should Oxford’s own “memorial reconstruction” theories be any less of a lost cause? That same myth is freely invoked in the Oxford Shrew (Oliver, 1982, 1984) and Henry V (Taylor, 1982, 1984).